Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 9.6

This should open up a can of philosophical worms (they’re the ones with the beards):

Does free will exist?

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113 Comments

  1. No.

    At least, not provably so, and since burden of proof is on those who would say ‘yes’, skeptical process says ‘do not accept’.

    (Now wait for people to claim proofs and rely on vague definitions of ‘free’, ‘will’ and ‘choice’.)

  2. How would we ever know, If we are just Brains in Jars wouldn’t it make sense for them to create the illusion of free will. I mean I know I can choose to post here, but can I. I could write yes or I could write no and whichever I chose I would assume was my decision. I could get up right now and turn my fan off, I could call 911, or I could bludgeon someone across the hall to death with a hammer, but I’m not going to do any of those. I assume because none of those are in my interest. In the end we can make whatever choice we want but we will never know.

  3. Hmmm. This has been discussed for hundreds of years by philosophers and theologians. I don’t recall that they ever came to a conclusion, which tells me tat if you can be paid for thinking about it, you are set for life!

    Really, what exactly do you mean by “free will,” carr2d2? Can you throw us a definition, please?

  4. This is one of my favorite topics. (Lots of skepchick commenter goodness at those links.)

    I think the general scientific/skeptical consensus is that humans respond predictably based on brain chemistry and environmental influences (based on prior punishment and/or reward).

    As for my POV, I can’t weigh in on this one, I can only confess that this is probably the topic I struggle with the most as a skeptic. Without free will, we’re not truly responsible for our “choices” – good or bad. Without at least the illusion of free will, life becomes very confusing. And arguments have been made for that.

    But not liking the implications of something doesn’t make it untrue. So I pretty much refrain from deciding, largely because I have trouble letting it go.

  5. I don’t know, but I have decided to believe it exists. Why? Because:

    a) If it doesn’t exist, I can’t choose whether to believe or not believe in it. It just happens. And

    b) If it does exist, I would be wrong if I believed it doesn’t. It’s only reasonable to believe in it.

    It makes sense to me. Sort of.

  6. @QuestionAuthority:

    I’ll throw a definition out there, since I’ve been asked to define it before. I define free will as:

    The ability to change one’s behavior based solely on analysis, not on genetic disposition or environmental factors.

    This may not be precisely what Carrie means, though, so I will be interested to see what she says.

  7. Um. You weren’t supposed to ask that question. (Get it? Heh… anyway.)

    “Does free will exist?’ is akin to saying “Is evolution ruled by chance?” The answer is yes AND no.

    There are biochemical motivators outside of our control, environmental factors outside of our control and choices we make which are completely under our control. There will always be all three tensors dragging us about, though I do see that we seem to have some influence over how much control we give to any one factor.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit. In the end it doesn’t matter whether free will exists or doesn’t exist. I have to operate everyday like it does exist. I have to live my life under the assumption that my actions are goverend by my free will. Otherwise there is no point to doing anything. So either way if it exists or doesn’t exist I will live my life like it does.

    Radio lab did a very interesting episode on just this subject. Some scientist have be trying to measure free will. If someone will teach me the html to embed a link I will post a link to the episode.

  9. @Stacey:

    Without free will, we’re not truly responsible for our “choices” – good or bad.

    I’ve seen arguments for free will based on personal responsibility. It goes like: “If there is no free will, nobody is responsible for what they do, and we could as well dismantle our judicial and penal system.” The problem is that this is a paradox: if there is no free will, we can’t choose to dismantle anything.

  10. I tried to think over this question with your new definition for a while, and I *still* can’t come up with anything consistent to say. I must have deleted and re-typed my comment several times already.

    In other words, I’m full of self-contradictions.

    (But my preference [i.e. no logical analysis just stuff from what other’s said] is that “free will” doesn’t exist.) Can’t explain why without getting stuck in a quagmire.

  11. @Andrés Diplotti:

    Lack of personal responsibility is one of the hardest ideas to accept when considering that free will doesn’t exist. It’s one of the reasons I can’t let go of the idea, and one of the reasons I agree with GabrielBrawley that we have to operate as if it existed, regardless of its actual existence (Psyhology Today wrote an article about the very point Gabriel made – I am looking for it).

    In regard to the paradox you mention, it’s semantics. We may not be able to “choose” to dismantle the judicial and penal system, but we can dismantle it. In other words, the stimulus of learning that free will doesn’t exist could cause us predictably to respond by dismantling the judicial and penal system

    Or at least that’s what the general scientific consensus would be.

  12. Why does the judicial system always have to tie in?

    I mean if a person is guilty of some crime, in the “free will” situation, s/he is guilty because s/he chose to do something wrong. In the “non-free will” situation, s/he is guilty because his/her personality and logic renders the person dangerous to society. (Assuming the person thought rationally and has no mental illness.) It’s just a matter of how you change the definition of crime.

    Just my thoughts on the subject.

  13. The ability to change one’s behavior based solely on analysis, not on genetic disposition or environmental factors.

    Where do the tools for analysis come from if not from genetic disposition and experience?

    My response is that we have free will but it isn’t the ability to act outside of our genetic disposition and environment\experience. They simply give us available options to choose from. Like those sword and sorcery books from my childhood we have only limited choices but are still capable of choosing.

  14. @Freiddie: yeah…i think people run into problems with this when they are thinking about the judicial system as an agent of punishment. if you instead think of it as a system of protecting the public from dangerous individuals perpetrating future crimes, which i think is a much saner way to view it, free will becomes pretty much irrelevant.

  15. @Stacey:

    In other words, the stimulus of learning that free will doesn’t exist could cause us predictably to respond by dismantling the judicial and penal system

    Or at least that’s what the general scientific consensus would be.

    I don’t see that clearly that that would be the general consensus. Hypothetical scenario: scientists determine that there is not such a thing as free will, that were are automata that react to environmental factors and stimuli. That would destroy the personal responsibility, sure enough. But it doesn’t follow that the penal system is superfluous, since it is still one of those environmental factors. In this case, the possibility of a punishment for wrongdoing could be an influence on the “flesh automata” to make them behave.

  16. Since I’m a student, I’m pretty sure that my “self” has a way to avoid homework, like right now. If I had a choice (which is what I imagine whenever I look retrospective), I would choose to do productive things other than the Internet, which isn’t the case. (Of course, you can argue that I lack self-control, but if “free will” doesn’t exist, then… I’ll stop here,)

    Which is why I find myself hard to believe that free will exists.

    This is such an interesting discussion – I bet this’ll come in handy for my philosophy class.

  17. Passing out of topic, sort of, for just a second: Isn’t the judicial system really not much more than a way of excusing revenge, and making it palatable for us to fall into the feel-good buzz of the R-complex for a moment or two without suffering the usual hangover such descent can cause?

    Back on topic now.

    If free will exists, how do we explain reactions and actions for which we have not had any time at all to prepare, to analyze, to maka a decision, and so forth, especially when such things often feel precisely the same (if we take the time and effort to be that observant) as decisions for which we think we have had time to prepare, to analyze, to make a decision, and so forth.

    Doesn’t the latest research into brain function show that the decisions we make are in fact invariably made some nanoseconds before we are even, in any way whatsoever, aware of them? I read something about that in Skeptical Inquirer, or perhaps on some science Website somewhere.

    Anyway, if that research is true, then surely free will, or the concept thereof must be an anthropogenic?

  18. Isn’t the judicial system really not much more than a way of excusing revenge…

    Actually, it’s really not. It’s a way for the powerful to demonstrate and consolidate their power. It’s a way to remove disruptive elements from society. There are, of course, elements of the revenge mentality there, and I won’t deny it, but it’s much more about maintaining the status quo.

  19. @Andrés Diplotti:

    Oh, that’s not what I meant. Sorry if I was unclear. You said that without free will, we could not choose to dismantle the judicial system. I agreed, but also said that we could still dismantle it as a logical response to the stimulus of learning that free will doesn’t exist.

    The general consensus of science on free will is that we basically respond predictably based on our genetics and learned responses to stimuli. I know this because I’m usually the one arguing for free will, and I’ve been schooled numerous times (visit the three links in my original comment for front row seats).

    I also agree with what you said – the the possibility of punishment for wrongdoing could be an influence on the “flesh automata” to make them behave”. Those who don’t believe in free will would say the “possibility of punishment” is a stimulus, that will cause the response of behaving in many people.

    For different reasons, I can neither argue for or against free will. And I don’t think my current understanding of the subject is either correct or sufficient. This is a hard one for me.

  20. The justice system is supposed to remove revenge from the equation. It is a way for society to decide on what it chooses to be acceptable. It is supposed to help protect society from dangerous individuals. It is supposed to mete out a punishment that is commiserate to the crime. For the last 28 years it has been moving away from a modle of just punishment for infractions of laws to one of punishments that are outsized to the crimes commited. This has a hardening affect on society. I worked inside the system for 11 years. When I left I had become sickened by it. It needs to be reformed. We have spent 28 years becoming a society that is built on hate, greed and destrutiveness. I have been seeing hopeful signs that the pendulum may have reached the top of its swing and may now be reversing direction. I think that society can only progress so far before the members of it who are afraid lash out and the society retrogrades. But if that society survives then it can begin to progress again. I think we may be on the cusp of another progression. I really hope we are.

  21. I have given up my meager thoughts on this topic. So now I am going off topic. Feel free to ignore me. I won’t notice.

    I would like to make a few suggestions for future AI’s these are lighthearted.

    1. Which is sexier. A standard beautiful, sexy women who isn’t all that bright or a plain woman who is very smart and skeptical. Same question in regards to men.

    2. Are there any good movies that portray atheists/skeptics as the heros?

    3. What is the worst movie you have ever seen?

    4. What is the dumbest thing you have ever done?

    Hope that some of these will be posed in the future. I think they might be fun. Things have been a little tense lately.

  22. The criminal justice system in the US functions on two levels. The social policy is retributionist. We’re punishing criminals with (some approximation of) what they deserve for committing a crime. Any protective function is incidental, since someone who’s incarcerated can still commit crimes, they just have a smaller pool of potential victims.

    In order to operate in a truly protective way, punishment would have to include some focus on either permanent incapacity or rehabilitation. With the exception of life and death sentences, our justice system doesn’t even attempt either approach.

    The second level is a purely economic one. Prisons are often for-profit enterprises, and their construction and operation are huge industries. There are giant companies that have a compelling interest in expanding the prison population, and increasing the length of average sentences. And they hire very good lobbyists.

  23. Stacey, very interesting stuff you’ve written, very informative. Thanks for the ponderings.

    I might be picking at straws here, but you say “the defense that people aren’t responsible for their actions won’t work in the courtroom.” But isn’t the defense of insanity precisely that?

    “Behaviorists experimented with dogs….” That mostly points to the work of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner doesn’t it? I thought current psychology theory had more or less debunked much of that work, showing it to be deeply flawed, mostly wrong, and somewhat self-crafted. Or am I just hallucinating here? Or maybe I am getting confused with the current view of only Skinner’s work?

    Schlinger’s stuff is fascinating: “… the mind is not a real event”.

    Absolutely. I love that.

    The whole issue of programmed behaviour, programmed thinking, opens up some fascinating thought potential (ooh, the delicious ironies just abound!) in regard to what artists refer to as the muse.

    Many artists say they do not know where their ideas come from; they just seem to appear as gifts from the muse. Well, perhaps the muse is nothing more than semi-predictable chemical, environmental, social programming. Ooh, it’s lovely, scary, and chthonic all at once. Wonderful.

    Somehow I think I find Einstein’s view comforting, as did he.

  24. I might be picking at straws here, but you say “the defense that people aren’t responsible for their actions won’t work in the courtroom.” But isn’t the defense of insanity precisely that?

    It very much is. If there truly is no free will, then that defense applies to every crime.

  25. I know it wasn’t presented as an immediate question, but I can’t very well pass it by. I tried.

    1. Which is sexier. A standard beautiful, sexy women who isn’t all that bright or a plain woman who is very smart and skeptical

    Which would I rather toss on my couch as decoration? The first. Which would I rather have sex with? The second.

  26. “… a can of philosophical worms (they’re the ones with the beards).”

    Bearded worms. Hmm. Aren’t they brother to bearded clams?

    I know, I know, too silly, too childish, but I just couldn’t resist.

    /I’ll get my hat and just close the door on my way out shall I?

  27. This signature indicates that there is a function in the fly brain which evolved to generate spontaneous variations in the behavior. This function appears to be common to many other animals and could form the biological foundation for what we experience as free will.

    via BjornBrembs

  28. @SicPreFix:

    you say “the defense that people aren’t responsible for their actions won’t work in the courtroom.” But isn’t the defense of insanity precisely that?

    Yes. Our current justice system requires sanity for responsibility. Hopefully, it won’t make room for sane people based on the premise of no free will.

    “Behaviorists experimented with dogs….” That mostly points to the work of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner doesn’t it? I thought current psychology theory had more or less debunked much of that work, showing it to be deeply flawed, mostly wrong, and somewhat self-crafted.

    To the best of my knowledge, behaviorism has not been “debunked”, but it is generally viewed as short-sighted, or insufficient. In a nutshell, behaviorism focused on observable actions only – it was the purely scientific approach to psychology of its time, and an important step along the way. Behaviorism suggests that free-will either doesn’t exist or is irrelevant, which is (ironicallly) why it’s relevant to this topic.

    Nowadays, technology allows us to study “mental events” using brain scan equipment and computer models, though the conclusions are messy. But that’s all part of the learning process – it doesn’t make the topic unworthy of exploration, which is why behaviorism is viewed as short-sighted and insufficient by some.

    Disclaimer – behaviorism itself is a broad topic and I’m making generalizations here.

  29. Another comment that has nothing to do with what we have been discussing. I was reading through the comments and thinking about the conflict and strife that has been going on and I remembered the only Python routine.

    Man goes into an office and pays to have an argument. He is unhappy with the argument and goes next door to the complaints department where a man begins to complain as soon as he walks in. Upset by this the man leaves and walks into the next office where he is hit over the head.

    Kind of feels like that around here lately. Just not at funny. This post has been great.

  30. BruceKiwi said:

    We do not necessarily live in a deterministic universe, so there could be free will. Between quantum mechanics, and chaos theory, the outcome from any given situation has a random component.

    Quantum mechanics shows that we cannot accurately predict everything because the act of observations affects the result. It does not say that the result is random. Chaos theory is about finding order in complex events, not that events are chaotic.

  31. I wonder if we (as human beings) CAN answer this question…since we don’t know if we truly live in a deterministic universe or not.

    Question: Does the illusion of having free will and actually having free will amount to the same thing when a decision is made?

    Detroitus may have the only logical position until more information comes in.

    This thread is giving me a headache, which is actually a good thing. My job currently involves little real thought, so my mind is getting lazy. Thank you for the mental weightlifting, carr2d2!

    And I just saw the Argument Clinic sketch last night on BBCAmerica. LOL

  32. Does the illusion of having free will and actually having free will amount to the same thing when a decision is made?

    I don’t think so.

    If there is only an illusion of free will, then one has a culture that defines one as having a free will.

    If there is actual free will, then one has the capacity to choose the degree to which one might participate in the actions defined by said culture.

    The measurable difference after the fact is the degree of compliance with a culture compared to expected.

    Where this gets foggy is “expected.” We have many studies of nurture and nature – the two things that can shape a person’s actions other than free will. Unfortunately, these studies tend to examine either nurture or nature. We need a study that looks at the contribution of both factors to behavior simultaneously.

    I propose someone does a meta-analysis of twin studies to find the actual amount that twins behavior can be accounted for by cultural, developmental, and genetic factors (can this be done?). Because it would be expected to be one, any statistically significant deviation would have to be accounted for by free will (or another, similar factor).

  33. Hoverfrog said:

    “Quantum mechanics shows that we cannot accurately predict everything because the act of observations affects the result. It does not say that the result is random. Chaos theory is about finding order in complex events, not that events are chaotic.”

    Thanks for the comment. Quantum mechanics does say that there is a limit to how much we can know about the state of anything. Chaos theory states that small differences in initial state can grow into large differences in the final state. So that initial uncertainity can grow into a large unpredictability. Therefore the universe is not deterministic.

  34. I wrote a blog post on this once, too lazy to fish it out now… in general I would answer “yes: free will does exist, in that we are free to make decisions based upon the various inputs (desires, dangers, perceptions) that meet our brains.” But when we talk about “free will,” people often REALLY mean “determinable will.” They want there to be some “fuzzy space” to maintain the illusion of control over their actions.

    The thing is, they DO have control over their actions, it’s just that there may be only one possible outcome of their decisions. The reason they have control over their decisions is because the collection of atoms that make up “them” are part of the processes that determine their actions. So, the world may or may not be deterministic, but we still have free will, of a fashion.

  35. @Mathmike

    I am hereby charging you with violation of the comedy thread code: “failure to end a thread with a proper punch line.”

    I am so sorry, I didn’t realize that this code existed. Please allow me to rectify my failure. Here is the punchline.

    What a stupid concept.

    I hope that makes up for my earlier failure.

  36. and just to make this a little easier here is everything.

    Man: Ah. I’d like to have an argument, please.

    Receptionist: Certainly sir. Have you been here before?

    Man: No, I haven’t, this is my first time.

    Receptionist: I see. Well, do you want to have just one argument, or were you thinking of taking a course?

    Man: Well, what is the cost?

    Receptionist: Well, It’s one pound for a five minute argument, but only eight pounds for a course of ten.

    Man: Well, I think it would be best if I perhaps started off with just the one and then see how it goes.

    Receptionist: Fine. Well, I’ll see who’s free at the moment.

    (Pause)

    Receptionist: Mr. DeBakey’s free, but he’s a little bit conciliatory. Ah yes, Try Mr. Barnard; room 12.

    Man: Thank you.

    (Walks down the hall. Opens door.)

    Mr Barnard: WHAT DO YOU WANT?

    Man: Well, I was told outside that…

    Mr Barnard: Don’t give me that, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!

    Man: What?

    Mr Barnard: Shut your festering gob, you tit! Your type really makes me puke, you vacuous, coffee-nosed, malodorous, pervert!!!

    Man: Look, I CAME HERE FOR AN ARGUMENT, I’m not going to just stand…!!

    Mr Barnard: OH, oh I’m sorry, but this is abuse.

    Man: Oh, I see, well, that explains it.

    Mr Barnard: Ah yes, you want room 12A, Just along the corridor.

    Man: Oh, Thank you very much. Sorry.

    Mr Barnard: Not at all.

    Man: Thank You. (Under his breath) Stupid git!!

    (Walk down the corridor)

    Man: (Knock)

    Mr Vibrating: Come in.

    Man: Ah, Is this the right room for an argument?

    Mr Vibrating: I told you once.

    Man: No you haven’t.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes I have.

    Man: When?

    Mr Vibrating: Just now.

    Man: No you didn’t.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes I did.

    Man: You didn’t

    Mr Vibrating: I did!

    Man: You didn’t!

    Mr Vibrating: I’m telling you I did!

    Man: You did not!!

    Mr Vibrating: Oh, I’m sorry, just one moment. Is this a five minute argument or the full half hour?

    Man: Oh, just the five minutes.

    Mr Vibrating: Ah, thank you. Anyway, I did.

    Man: You most certainly did not.

    Mr Vibrating: Look, let’s get this thing clear; I quite definitely told you.

    Man: No you did not.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes I did.

    Man: No you didn’t.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes I did.

    Man: No you didn’t.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes I did.

    Man: No you didn’t.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes I did.

    Man: You didn’t.

    Mr Vibrating: Did.

    Man: Oh look, this isn’t an argument.

    Mr Vibrating: Yes it is.

    Man: No it isn’t. It’s just contradiction.

    Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.

    Man: It is!

    Mr Vibrating: It is not.

    Man: Look, you just contradicted me.

    Mr Vibrating: I did not.

    Man: Oh you did!!

    Mr Vibrating: No, no, no.

    Man: You did just then.

    Mr Vibrating: Nonsense!

    Man: Oh, this is futile!

    Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.

    Man: I came here for a good argument.

    Mr Vibrating: No you didn’t; no, you came here for an argument.

    Man: An argument isn’t just contradiction.

    Mr Vibrating: It can be.

    Man: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

    Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.

    Man: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.

    Mr Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

    Man: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’

    Mr Vibrating: Yes it is!

    Man: No it isn’t!

    Man: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.

    (short pause)

    Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.

    Man: It is.

    Mr Vibrating: Not at all.

    Man: Now look.

    Mr Vibrating: (Rings bell) Good Morning.

    Man: What?

    Mr Vibrating: That’s it. Good morning.

    Man: I was just getting interested.

    Mr Vibrating: Sorry, the five minutes is up.

    Man: That was never five minutes!

    Mr Vibrating: I’m afraid it was.

    Man: It wasn’t.

    (Pause)

    Mr Vibrating: I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to argue anymore.

    Man: What?!

    Mr Vibrating: If you want me to go on arguing, you’ll have to pay for another five minutes.

    Man: Yes, but that was never five minutes, just now. Oh come on!

    Mr Vibrating: (Hums)

    Man: Look, this is ridiculous.

    Mr Vibrating: I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to argue unless you’ve paid!

    Man: Oh, all right.

    (pays money)

    Mr Vibrating: Thank you. (short pause)

    Man: Well?

    Mr Vibrating: Well what?

    Man: That wasn’t really five minutes, just now.

    Mr Vibrating: I told you, I’m not allowed to argue unless you’ve paid.

    Man: I just paid!

    Mr Vibrating: No you didn’t.

    Man: I DID!

    Mr Vibrating: No you didn’t.

    Man: Look, I don’t want to argue about that.

    Mr Vibrating: Well, you didn’t pay.

    Man: Aha. If I didn’t pay, why are you arguing? I Got you!

    Mr Vibrating: No you haven’t.

    Man: Yes I have. If you’re arguing, I must have paid.

    Mr Vibrating: Not necessarily. I could be arguing in my spare time.

    Man: Oh I’ve had enough of this.

    Mr Vibrating: No you haven’t.

    Man: Oh Shut up.

    (Walks down the stairs. Opens door.)

    Man: I want to complain.

    Complainer: You want to complain! Look at these shoes. I’ve only had them three weeks and the heels are worn right through.

    Man: No, I want to complain about…

    Complainer: If you complain nothing happens, you might as well not bother.

    Man: Oh!

    Complainer: Oh my back hurts, it’s not a very fine day and I’m sick and tired of this office.

    (Slams door. walks down corridor, opens next door.)

    Man: Hello, I want to… Ooooh!

    Spreaders: No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go Waaah. Try it again.

    Man: uuuwwhh!!

    Spreaders: Better, Better, but Waah, Waah! Put your hand there.

    Man: No.

    Spreaders: Now..

    Man: Waaaaah!!!

    Spreaders: Good, Good! That’s it.

    Man: Stop hitting me!!

    Spreaders: What?

    Man: Stop hitting me!!

    Spreaders: Stop hitting you?

    Man: Yes!

    Spreaders: Why did you come in here then?

    Man: I wanted to complain.

    Spreaders: Oh no, that’s next door. It’s being-hit-on-the-head lessons in here.

    Man: What a stupid concept

  37. Okay,
    I’ve just posted a monty python script. So to continue the BBC feeling I need some help. I just watched Doctor Who “The Family of Blood.” Which is the second part of “Human Nature”

    Who plays the old man version of Tim at the end of the episode. I think I have seen this guy but I can’t find out who it is on the internet. Is this one of the earlier Doctors? Pertwiee maybe?

  38. Of course there is no such thing as free will. The brain essentially functions automatically, any perceptions of self control or free will are just that, perceptions. Tell me, do “you” have any control over individual parts of your brain? Or over individual neurons? Or do they run automatically based on the inputs they receive and how they are adapted to function? What about the atoms and quarks that they’re made of? Do you have any control over them or the physical laws that govern them? Or does the functioning of the universe proceed on its own regardless of us? If you say you do have control then the question I have to ask you is “How?” Is there something special about you that allows you to function outside the laws that govern all things?

    I am a determinist at heart. I believe that all things, at least at the macro level, proceed in an uninterrupted cause and effect relationship, a relationship that we and all of the matter in our bodies are also subject to. We are all unfortunate actors in a play whose every last detail has been entirely pre-programmed.

  39. Gabrielbrawley, perhaps the most productive way of posting something that is as long as, oh, I don’t know, the Trans Canada Highway, would be to post a link to some other online version of the script?

    Maybe?

    I mean, I know I’m no hero of short posts, but jeebles crystals!

  40. Wouldn’t having true free will mean that you are a sociopath? No matter how much we want to. Most of use are unable to do “questionable” things. Most of us think we can kill someone if it called for it…but even if it’s kill or be killed most humans find it hard to do. When you read accounts of a soldier killing another at close range they speak of being sick, or changing in some way.

    However that means everything we do is based on genetics and enviromental factors? Maybe we have will but it’s not free. Maybe we choose the cost from multiple choice.

  41. BruceKiwi said

    Quantum mechanics does say that there is a limit to how much we can know about the state of anything. Chaos theory states that small differences in initial state can grow into large differences in the final state. So that initial uncertainty can grow into a large unpredictability. Therefore the universe is not deterministic.

    The fact that we cannot know the state of a quantum particle does not mean that it’s state is not determined. it simply means that we cannot tell if it is determined.

    In chaos theory we see a small factor contribute to large, chaotic difference in state. By factoring in all these small factors we should be able to predict the final state. I admit that this is a near impossible task, mindboggling in its complexity and awe inspiring to comprehend. However that does not mean that it is impossible and it does not invalidate a determinist universe. It just means that we have an even harder time making accurate predictions than was considered when determinism was first thought if.

  42. Free Will! Getcha Free Will right here! Today only!

    Good morning, sir! Could I interst you in a pint of Will? Free, today only! Ma’am? A pint of Will?

    Will you have it here, or would you like it to go?

    Hurry, hurry, hurry! An offer this good can’t last long!

    Free Will! Freee Will!

    This offer void where prohibited by law. Some restrictions apply.

  43. If humans are biological machines, something i tend to believe, they react to stimuli and have no free will. Wouldn’t this free will require a place in our brain that can make random decisions, a place that is outside the “stimulus – reaction” loop? Can a human brain create true random numbers or instances?

  44. @Blakut: You absolutely get reactions in the brain that are outside the “stimulus-reaction” loop. Glial cells, hormones, etc. all contribute to the process.

    I disagree that humans are biological machines. Rather, humans are made by biological machines. We are the skyscraper made with a hammer and drill. Inside the skyscraper, both mechanical things and things that drive/assist the mechanical things happen.

    How would adding randomness to one’s actions help improve the fitness of the machines that make us? For individuals it wouldn’t. But what if no one had thought to leave Africa – novel and risky at the time, no doubt? There would be no fertile crescent and no civilization. Just one or two people with a “free will”-style gene would have an enormous evolutionary advantage when a behavior is beneficial, yet not present in a population.

  45. I can’t see how it could. Everything we do, as far as current evidence can determine, is based solely on chemical reactions. Our brains and personalities are all just coming from brains that are run by biological processes. Granted, we don’t understand how they all work yet, but there is no real scientific reason to think that we can do anything outside of what our biology determines.

    *However*, we certainly must live as if we do have free will. How could we not?

  46. I think this is in the same category of argument as Dawkins and Pinker talking over at Edge about Soul One and Soul Two. Is the evidence good that we have a Soul One-a thing, immaterial, indivisible, monolithic, unparsable and unknowable that represents all there is to be human? Nope, doesn’t seem so, but the lack of a “ghost” in no way invalidates the existence of Soul Two-a distributed sets of characteristics, carried by language and gene, enacted in art and science, victory and tragedy, that does all of the same things, with the added advantage of being real.

    The dismantling of the elan vital concept charts a similar course-the fact that an inefffable and mysterious vapor or force has been replaced in our understanding of life by tiny molecular machines and chemical soups has in no way tempted us to so that the things around us are not actually alive. They still possess all the characteristics that led us to go looking for what made them tick in the first place.

    Free will would seem to follow a similar tract-I find no reason to conclude that, even though our minds contain no ghosts, that all the characteristics that led us to look for ghosts-free will and the like-don’t exist. To do so would seem to be a problem with our definition of free will, not with our understanding of the world as obeying consistent laws of physics. The fact that we are made of matter infused with energy strikes me as so wholly irrelevant to a discussion of freedom that I wonder why it seems to create such a compelling mental trap.

    Can you take systematic steps from something not having free will to something with agency? Sure-just like, without invoking mysterious spirits, we can get from non-living matter to life, or from reptiles to mammals in the evolutionary tree-no changes in the raw materials, but in the nature and sophistication of their arrangements. A pebble, rolling down a hill, is in no sense a free agent-it’s behavior is dependent solely on the moment to moment interactions with the physical environment nearest it. A bacterium can do better-it could travel uphill, following a nutrient gradient-expending stored energy, against prevailing forces, for future gain. A simple animal could do better-it could perhaps expand the net of stimuli that determines its behavior farther not only in space- with say, eyes, but in time-with a memory. The options that are “open” (in the sense that, in most worlds pretty darn close to the configuration of ours, they happen sometimes) gets bigger. Arrive at something like a human, and you have a mind that, while it might be deterministic in the most cosmic sense, is most succinctly described and understood as a free agent.

    One of my favorite Dennet passages describes it as the difference between an anti-gravity machine and a helicopter. Sure, we don’t have an anti-gravity machine, made of unknown materials and able to zip off in any direction at any speed without regard to its environment. But we have a helicopter-which does most of the same things to our satisfaction, and is made of parts we understand. We have “enough” free will to get by.

    To put it another way, does the fact that the molecules of the human brain obey the laws of physics invalidate conceptual heavy lifters like consumer choice, or democracy, or personal responsibility, or trying criminals, or informed consent, or….? No, if anything it points the way to making us more free- it is something that can be cultivated, through education, and sensible law, and honest dealing, and everything else that wise folk have been telling us were necessary for free living for some thousands of years.

  47. @Aristothenes: Looks like bafflegab to me.

    That post contains an awful lot of empty, perhaps meaningless conjecture and assertion. I’ll look at just two examples.

    Is the evidence good that we have a Soul One … that represents all there is to be human? Nope, doesn’t seem so, but the lack of a “ghost” in no way invalidates the existence of Soul Two-a distributed sets of characteristics, carried by language and gene, enacted in art and science, victory and tragedy, that does all of the same things, with the added advantage of being real.

    To my understanding, free will would be “Soul One”, if it was anything.

    What we actually work with would be the chemical machinery, anthropogenesis, etc. of “Soul Two”. I can see no evidence or even fuzzy relationship, correlation, what-have-you, in your argument to support or assert evidence for free will.

    … does the fact that the molecules of the human brain obey the laws of physics invalidate conceptual heavy lifters like consumer choice, or democracy, or personal responsibility, or trying criminals, or informed consent….

    What on earth are you trying to posit?

    Conceptual heavy hitters? Heavy hitters of what? Marketting theory? The power of advertising? Peer pressure?

    It certainly isn’t free will. And I’m afraid the rest of that paragraph is just about as wrong as wrong gets.

    With all due respect I definitely call this empty bafflegab.

  48. Meh, fair enough. There are others who articulate it better than me, including me when better fed and slept. I think it just boils down to that thinking we aren’t free because we can’t find free will “juice,” but still are faced daily with what look like, smell like, and taste like choices to make (that no one can predict better than you-even Laplace’s Demon can’t predict its own behavior, and thus the ultimate outcome of a world in which it lives,) rightly place value on things like consent and rights, and can react in far more diverse ways than anything else we know of, seems about as silly as asserting that because we can’t find “life juice,” that living things “really” aren’t alive-despite still being faced with crawling creatures that eat, crap, and breed.

    So the kind of free will you have isn’t magical-it’s instead built out of the same stuff as everything else. Is it worth wanting and having all the same? Of course. The magical versions are really just asking that you be able to make a decisions without a reason-which isn’t what most of us think about when we roll around the term. Calling free will a useful illusion or redefining it to be logically consistent are really the same position-I just prefer the latter because the first seems to imply that “real” free will is lurking out there.

    Or take the time delay of conscious action-that the signals that indicate an action potential can be detected before a person asserts they decided something. That only follows if “you” are lurking somewhere in the top of your brain. But it doesn’t work that way. You are your whole brain. All it really demonstrates is that, like all other physical processes, consciousness takes time, and that the parts of you that make a decision have done their work before the parts that communicate with the world.

    People still doing everything they did when an intangible spirit was our best theory of will and consciousness-the fact that such a spirit doesn’t exist means that we have to divide the tasks done by that nonexistent spirit up into tasks that can be done by physical machines distributed in space and time. The human brain seems up to the challenge.

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